When I think of my childhood, I don’t visualise toys or things; I see a magical place of beauty and majesty – the garden where I grew up. I see the path winding up to the house and having to push aside the weeping foliage to get past, surrounded by an ever-changing array of flowers and foliage. The air was filled with a kaleidoscope of scents and, while at first it seemed quiet, once I tuned in, there was a cacophony of sounds – all natural sounds from insects such as the bees and crickets to frogs, birds and the wind rustling through the foliage.
The beauty of nature surrounded me, and it imbued me with a sense of awe and wonder that I still feel today whenever I see nature’s marvellous creations.
As a child, I made cubbies under large shrubs; played with mud, slime and wet clay; made clothing and jewellery from foliage and flowers; and picked and pressed flowers aplenty. For me, it’s vital to share that wonder of plants and nature that was gifted to me with my children. Several years ago I heard some statistics that really shocked me, making me realise that not all children get the opportunity to connect with nature the way that I did.
According to Nature Play SA, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes outdoor play for children, one in three children have never planted a garden, showing an astounding disconnect between the current generation of children and what I believe to be one of the most important life skills. They also point out that the average Australian child has five hours a day of screen time yet only two hours a day of outside time. Even maximum security prisoners in gaols spend more time outside than this! It’s no coincidence that we’re having increased problems with childhood obesity in Australia, with 25 per cent of our kids classified as obese or overweight.
There are many reasons kids are spending less time outside. Many families now live in high-density housing with no access to outdoor space. Where they do live in a house, blocks are smaller with less space outdoors, and even where block sizes remain the same, many modern houses have a much larger footprint over the block.
The little space left for a garden is often paved over or simply has a lawn plonked on it, so why would kids want to go outside – there is nothing to do or explore, and no potential for adventure. Another reason why kids venture outside less is because our society has become increasingly risk-averse and clean-obsessed. Kids are no longer allowed to free range down to the local park, or climb trees and play in the mud. Combined with the technological distractions not available to previous generations, screen time has replaced green time for Australian kids.
Spending time outside in nature, whether gardening or just playing, is really important for us all, and vital for children. It is essential for their physical, mental and emotional development, and there are numerous studies that show unstructured time outdoors in nature improves a child’s imagination as well as their ability to make decisions, solve problems, resolve conflict and much more. Time spent outside makes children healthier, happier, more focused, more creative, more generous and, of course, better environmental stewards.
Research also shows that children were less likely to suffer symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) if they spent time in gardens or parks. I believe that creating a backyard where children can enjoy free play, connect with nature and learn to grow some of their own food sows a seed for their future health, wellbeing and happiness, and the future health of the planet.
Yet another sad statistic that Nature Play SA shares is that only one in four children have climbed a tree. My goodness! Our risk-averse society means we are scared to let kids climb a tree in case they fall and hurt themselves, yet such physical activities teach balance, coordination, judgement and gross motor skills that are essential in life. I think it is ironic that we are so scared for our kids when they are young, yet we are happy to put our 16-year-olds (or 17- or 18-year-olds, depending on where you live) behind the wheel of a car and let them drive!
Now I do admit that I’ve often had my heart in my throat as I watch my kids climb trees, thrash their bikes around the paddock and over earth mounds, or use pocket knives, axes or other potentially dangerous tools when making their own cubby houses. We’ve tried to find a balance between risk-taking and age-appropriate limits for our kids that has allowed them to grow in confidence and ability as well as develop physical skills and some judgement.
The Nature Play movement is gaining worldwide recognition and momentum. While it is great to see keen parents taking their kids out to national parks and botanic gardens for special nature experiences, to me the best place to encounter nature on an intimate level every single day is in your own backyard.
It’s close, parking is a breeze, it’s free to enter and you can go there as often as you like. You may think there’s nothing to see there, BUT just try giving your kids a magnifying glass to see little creatures and plants up close and a jar with holes in the lid (or a bug catcher) so they can collect bugs and watch them for a bit (before letting the bugs go back in the same place). All creatures are fascinating, and if you’ve ever watched a snail for long enough you may even decide that they, too, are rather cute – too cute to squash. When my kids saw their ‘antennas’ or eyestalks go up and down and then slime around, each snail with different shell markings, they built a snail farm in an old aquarium and it sat in pride of place in my kitchen for weeks, till I could find an excuse to put them back outside. I also lost my willing snail patrol, as the kids were no longer happy to collect and stomp them for me.
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This is an extract from Sophie Thomson’s latest book, Sophie’s Patch. Find out more https://sophiespatch.com.au/